Anticipating death

The first time I first noticed it was on a visit to friends in Jerusalem some time back.  Their son Ido had just finished army duty.  Over the course of Shabbat, dinner conversation referenced no fewer than five friends of the family’s sons who had died, three in military action, one each in an auto accident and a freak electrical mishap.

His mother tried to draw Ido out about the most recent of the boys who passed.  Ido shut her down.  He did not want to talk about it.

I tried and failed to think of a twenty-year-old American who knew even a single friend or school acquaintance who had passed away.   Yet Ido and his brothers knew several.  What did that mean for their sense of the way life is likely to go?  As a non-Israeli, I couldn’t possibly know.  I would never ask.  If I did they wouldn’t tell me, even if they could.

I thought of Ido this summer, when my wife and I and our US-based sons traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the birth to our daughter of our first sabra grandson.  This happy occasion coincided with the war in Gaza.  Although Jerusalem was quiet and outdoor cafes were full, everyone was well aware of what was going on just a few minutes away.

A friend told us about a shiva minyan being held near where we were staying for a soldier who had fallen in Gaza.  At shaharit the next morning, we found a tent set up the courtyard between two apartments, furnished with white plastic chairs and siddurim.  At the front sat the hayal’s father, impassive.  Next to him were his three younger sons.

When tefillah was over, a man approached the avel and introduced himself in Hebrew as the Rabbi of an American congregation.  He pointed to several of his members who he said had flown over with him to show solidarity with Israel.

The hayal’s father seemed perplexed, but he was polite.  Our family has lived here for more than a 100 years, he said.  This is what we expect.  This is what we do.

The Rabbi and his members meant well.  So often vilified by the rest of the world, Israelis can surely use whatever support is available.  The question is: what kind of solidarity were the visitors showing?  In what way can someone who doesn’t send his children off to fight and possibly die empathize with someone who does, who did?

The avel’s three younger sons sitting beside him would be in the IDF themselves soon enough.  What did they make of what had happened and what was going on around them?  With shaharit over and school out for the summer, knots of teenage boys joked and horsed around in the way that teenage boys do.  Soon they too would be in army.  What were they thinking?

Adolescent boys are not reflective.  They don’t analyze their feelings, and they certainly don’t talk about them.  But they knew why they had come to this shiva minyan, and what it could mean for the course of the rest of their young lives.  They will store whatever that is inside themselves.

In America and elsewhere in the world, Jews send our children to high school, perhaps to a gap year in Israel, then to college.  Kids in their late teens and early 20’s worry about what school they’ll get into, what to study when they get there, what the job market will be like when they get out.  I can’t imagine there is an Israeli parent who doesn’t devoutly wish that ordinary concerns like those are all his children need to think about.  Someday, perhaps, that will be true.  Alas, not any time soon.

It is not exactly news that Israeli life differs from what Jews experience elsewhere.  Most Israelis, thank God, live long and full lives, whereas early death may strike anyplace.  The difference is that most people in the developed world don’t expect to face death in person until they reach or surpass threescore and ten.  In Israel, by contrast, at least in the segment of society that sends its children to defend the state, the anticipated arc of life is not the same, even though no one talks about it. The chance that young life may be cut short must change attitudes, plans, outlook in ways that no outsider, however sympathetic, can ever pretend to know.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts
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